Whether you are reading about old Hollywood or doing research into your family tree, it probably won’t be too long before you come across the D word – Divorce. For hundreds of thousands of years, hundreds of thousands of people have decided to join with someone else in marriage. It’s only natural that a fair percent of these wouldn’t work out.

Before the first no-fault divorce bill was signed by President Reagan in 1969, a spouse was required to give a reason for why they wanted a divorce that was backed up by proof and deemed valid by the court of law. Valid grounds for divorce included abandonment, adultery, criminal conviction or incarceration, cruelty, drunkenness, and insanity or mental illness.

Prior to 1969, it was especially difficult for a woman to obtain a divorce. In the 1920s, if a woman wanted a divorce due to adultery, she must be able to provide proof, even in cases of rape or incest. Rich men were not always subject to the same burden of proof. The balance of power was inescapably skewed.

So what was a gal (or guy) to do if they weren’t married to a drunk, insane criminal, but still wanted a divorce and had to prove that there was a good reason for wanting one?

Play the cruelty card.

Though an actual valid reason for divorce, legally and in theory, cruelty seemed to be one of those categories that was created almost as a loophole. If one spouse fell out of love with the other? Cruelty. If one spouse hated that the other wear their socks to bed? Cruelty. If one spouse had a spending problem that the other just couldn’t tolerate? Cruelty.

It is not unknown that I am a passionate collector of old Hollywood biographies. In almost every case of divorce noted, can you guess what the go-to at-fault reason for the split was? You guessed it: Cruelty.

Perhaps a reason for this, besides the fact that it offered a possible out when there may not otherwise be one, was that cruelty was a way of obtaining a divorce while not dragging both party’s names through the mud while doing it. After the flurry of Hollywood scandal that was actress Olive Thomas’ death by self ingested poison in 1920, baby-faced comedic actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s rape trial in 1921, director William Desmond Taylor’s unsolved murder (and blackening of the names of ingenue Mary Miles Minter and popular comedienne Mabel Normand in the process) in 1922, and heartthrob Wallace Reid’s death by drug addiction in 1923, to be under contract in Hollywood meant that you were most likely at the mercy of a morals clause, the response to these scandals. A morals clause encompassed everything from drinking alcohol in public to subjecting oneself to ridicule to homosexual relations. It was dangerous in its subjective nature of what was considered moral; basically it was a studio executive’s dream. If you broke this clause and allowed yourself to be subject to scandal, the consequences could be instant and severe. To cry adultery, insanity or drunkenness could mean an abrupt end of a career or, at least, a loss of money earned, a heap of unwanted publicity, or suspension by your studio. This clause gave studios leverage to keep those under contract in check. Everything was on the line.

So the safest way out of a marriage without throwing a Molotov cocktail to your career and lifestyle was to cry cruelty (or extreme cruelty, if you’re feeling extra emphatic). A few big named stars who went this route were Frank and Nancy Sinatra, Mickey Rooney and Ava Gardner, Hedy Lamarr and John Loder, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, and Elizabeth Taylor and Conrad “Nicky” Hilton Jr., among many, many others.

This face-saving concept was not exclusive to Hollywood. Cruelty as grounds for divorce served the purposes of the wealthy, the poor, male, and female alike. So, if you have a genealogical bent and you come across “cruelty” as the reason for your ancestors’ divorce, take a minute before you assume that someone in the marriage was abusive or unkind. It’s certainly possible, but it may not be the whole story.



Wilcox, W. Bradford. “The Evolution of Divorce.” National Affairs, 2009, www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-evolution-of-divorce. Number 39 – Spring 2019